Coming to Terms with Terror
But editorial laxity lets down the arguments
By Jeremy Tiang
September 11 and Political Freedoms: Asian Perspectives
September 11 and Political Freedom is a brave attempt to make sense of the single event that has dominated the global landscape for the past year, and to foresee what it means for the Southeast Asian region. Its contributors are vaguely left-leaning political experts of one kind or another, its editors Singaporean James Gomez, German Uwe Johannen and Australian Alan Smith.
That 9/11, as it has come to be called, is an event difficult to come to terms with is evident in these essays. Some use language of breathtaking banality (one actually begins “September 11, 2001 will be remembered as a defining moment in world history.”) because there are not the words to express the sheer loss and waste of human life. To their credit the contributors steer well clear of sentiment and focus on the political and social implications of the event, and if this makes them occasionally a little dry, it at least keeps the discussion on an intellectual plane.
The essays are thought provoking, even if you don't always agree with their political agenda. David Martin Jones and Mike Lawrence Smith produce a refreshing critique of ASEAN, alleging that the “rhetoric of regional harmony” in fact undermines the fight against terrorism, in that there is no room for dialogue because all the countries involved are too busy pretending to get along with each other. Their critiques of Singapore's concepts of “Total Defence” and “Shared Values” are laced with delightfully dark humour, culminating in the unforgettable line, “Chee Soon Juan... would, if he had ever encountered it, have considered ammonium nitrate a designer drug rather than the constituent ingredient of a car bomb.”
Also excellent is Andrew Tan's take on the “New” terrorism (or, in his words, the “brave new world of postmodern terrorism”). His survey of recent changes in the political landscape, and in particular how terror is now global rather than local, is concise and leads inevitably to the conclusion that Southeast Asia will have to be involved. Along with several other writers, he decries both the siege mentality of the USA and the loss of civil liberties that local governments are imposing on their peoples under the name of fighting terrorism. His rather depressing solution is for the region to make whatever political sacrifices are necessary to stay off the list of terrorist targets.
Hadi Soesastro and Sinapan Samydorai make similarly good points about the abuse of civil liberties with Samydorai pointing out that some of these were going on even before Sept 11, and that the lack of a clear definition of “terrorism” is going to hamper any effort to stop it. As he points out, governments are simply going to define the word in any way that suits them. Lyal Sunga postulates a “third way” of multi-lateralism for the US government, while Subroto Roy takes a broadly humanist view and advocates, unfashionably, “globalisation” – but as a process of cross-fertilisation rather than the “Westernising of the East”.
There are those who over-simplify the issue. Chief amongst them is Majid Tehranian, in his “The Centre Cannot Hold” – the title taken from the Yeats poem, which he quotes at length. He is prone to happy-clappy statements like “To unite the world against intolerance, government, business, civil society and media leaders must join forces” or “the world must learn to come together.” He doesn't have a clear idea of how this is to be done, apart from the setting up of a “Movement for Global Peace and Democracy” which will, he claims, eventually lead to a formation of a “World Assembly of Peoples” within a “reformed United Nations.” Well, yes. And then maybe we can all hold hands and sing “We Are the World”.
Less guilty of this are contributors like Kumar Ramakrishna, whose obsession is of a less starry-eyed, though more annoying, nature. His essay is called “The US Foreign Policy of Praetorian Unilateralism and the Implications for Southeast Asia” – short, snappy titles don't really happen here, which may be a sign of over-earnestness – uses the word “praetorian” on almost every page. Since he never defines it – and nor does my dictionary, or at least not beyond telling me it was the title of an imperial bodyguard in ancient Rome – the essay was a little hard to follow. Jonathan Woodier's essay on “the communication media” is interesting, if a little alarming in its soapbox stance against dumbing-down and state control, but it is hard to see what it has to do with Sept 11.
A major problem with the book is the lack of editorial control. There is no index, or fixed format for footnotes. Osama bin Laden's terrorist organisation is called variously “Al-Qaedah”, “Al-Qaeda” or “Al queda”, while the recently-discovered Singaporean off-shoot is referred to as “Jemiah Islamiah”, “Jemaah Islamiyah” and “Jemaah Islamyia”. The president of the Philippines gets called, within the space of three lines, first “Gloria Arroyo”, then “Ms Macapagal”.
More seriously, there are a number of typographical errors such as “Unibomber” instead of “Unabomber”, the “United State” instead of “States”, or “The improved prospects for terrorism has made...” It is of course easy enough to gloss over these defects, but it annoys the careful reader, and undermines the credibility of the book. How can one trust any of the statistics that are trotted out in most of the essays? If the editors were unable to ensure simple subject-verb agreement, is there any guarantee that these are accurate?
On the whole, this collection of essays is well put together and highly intelligent. Even if some of the views are a little too limited to be interesting, and it suffers in its presentation, there is still enough in here to make it stand out from the usual anodyne pap that is local political analysis.QLRS Vol. 2 No. 1 Oct 2002